Medical students nurture their ‘inner healer’ during music-based workshop

Kim Meeks, School of Medicine director of library and information science (at front), on vocals; and Macon musicians (from left) Michael Sanders, on bass; John Brainard, on drums; and Reese Kitchens, on keyboard, played as a jazz ensemble during lunch for the “Nurturing the Inner Healer” workshop on the School of Medicine’s Macon campus on March 8.
Kim Meeks, School of Medicine director of library and information science (at front), on vocals; and Macon musicians (from left) Michael Sanders, on bass; John Brainard, on drums; and Reese Kitchens, on keyboard, played as a jazz ensemble during lunch for the “Nurturing the Inner Healer” workshop on the School of Medicine’s Macon campus on March 8.

First-year medical students took a break from their textbooks recently to learn about mindfulness and compassion through music. On March 8, Mercer School of Medicine hosted an all-day, interactive workshop, titled “Nurturing the Inner Healer,” on its three campuses. 

The curriculum is one of several developed by professional orchestra conductor Peter Shannon and physician career and development coach Dr. Jacqueline Huntly for the American Institute for Music and Healing. The pair, who have worked with patients at the Memorial Health Anderson Cancer Institute in Savannah for some time, led the workshop from the School of Medicine campus in Savannah, while the Macon and Columbus campuses watched via livestream. In total, more than 150 first-year students participated.

The event, held during Mercer’s Interprofessional Education (IPE) Week, aligned with the mission and goals of the School of Medicine’s new Department of Bioethics and Medical Humanities, established in 2021. Medical humanities is an emerging field of study that explores how music, visual arts, literature, social sciences and more can be applied to medicine, and programs like “Nurturing the Inner Healer” help to broaden the education of medical students, said Dr. Brian Childs, chair of the department.

Students participate in ta mindfulness activity on the Savannah campus.
Students participate in a mindfulness activity on the Savannah campus.

The workshop used musical and interactive exercises to teach participants life skills and tools related to self-care and patient care. The six sessions of the day focused on balance and compassion, meaning and purpose, nurturing joy and connection, cultivating emotional balance, communication, and inspiration and creativity.

“During IPE Week, we prompt our students to think about their life goals and career aspirations and consider the steps they can take for growing as persons and as professionals,” said Dr. Marshall Angle, School of Medicine associate dean for evaluation and assessment. “Maestro Peter Shannon and Dr. Jacqueline Huntly developed a really compelling curriculum that we were able to tap into to support interpersonal education and physician wellness.”

For example, a violinist and violist played music to demonstrate healthy breathing patterns for mindfulness, and students learned about team building and communication skills by conducting the musicians, Dr. Childs said. They were challenged to find structure within a dissident musical piece as a lesson in focusing their attention. For another exercise, they listened to their partner speak for two minutes without interjecting and then provided a summary, Dr. Angle said. 

“I never saw a time when students weren’t engaged,” said Dr. Alice House, senior associate dean of admissions and student affairs for the School of Medicine. “The content of music and healing both from the provider as well as the patient was very engaging and meaningful all the way throughout. It was a very productive session.”

In addition, each campus had live, in-person musical performances during lunch. Many of the performers were from the School of Medicine, including Dr. House on flute; Kim Meeks, director of library and information science, on vocals; Dr. Lauren Bunch, assistant professor of bioethics and medical humanities, on violin; Edson Jean Jaques, director of demographic research for the Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center, on acoustic guitar; Laurie Villamor, School of Medicine Class of 2025, on keyboard and ukulele; and Dr. Jeff Ignatoff, vice chair of pathology and clinical sciences education, on keyboard. Local musicians included Michael Sanders; Reese Kitchens; John Brainard, husband of Dr. Jennifer Barkin, associate professor of community medicine and obstetrics and gynecology and vice chair of the Department of Community Medicine; and Aiden Slattery, son of Joe and Mickie Slattery, assistant director of medical simulation and clerkship coordinator on the Savannah campus. Dr. House said the students enjoyed getting to see the faculty, staff and peers from their campus perform.

Mercer School of Medicine professor Jeff Ignatoff and Laurie Villamor, Class of 2025, perform on the Savannah campus.
Mercer School of Medicine professor Dr. Jeff Ignatoff and Class of 2025 student Laurie Villamor perform on the Savannah campus.

“There’s this musical aspect of things if you really think about it,” Meeks said. “As a physician, you’re kind of the conductor, and your patients are the musicians. It’s more about allowing that person as a musician to play, and you guide them. That’s a really interesting look at the patient-physician relationship. I think it was a really good program.”

The workshop showed students how to look at situations in a different light and reframe their thinking, and it emphasized making time for themselves, Meeks said. 

“In the first two years, medical school is book learning. It doesn’t have anything to do with people. This (workshop) keeps the students’ curiosity about what makes people tick,” Dr. Childs said. “Medical school is tough enough, but the practice of medicine is tough with a high burnout rate. Self-care and self-compassion are just as important for the healthy survival of a career.”

Compassion for self is necessary for compassion for others, and that leads to building connections, Dr. Childs said.

“As (medical students) get started, they’re developing their entire professional identity,” Dr. House said. “So many times it’s about books, books, books, tests, tests, tests. This sets the tone for the rest of their career. For most physicians, it’s not a very ‘well’ career. We don’t take time for ourselves. We don’t ensure that we ourselves are well. Introducing this really early on, that healing is necessary and using music as a way to do that, is critical at this point in their lives.”

The hope is that this workshop will become a regular part of the School of Medicine curriculum, Dr. Childs said. Dr. House said the organizing committee is looking at ways to make the event sustainable and potentially expand upon it for future IPE Weeks. 

A tremendous amount of support has been shown for the event, including from Mercer President William D. Underwood, School of Medicine Dean Dr. Jean Sumner, and Mercer Board of Trustees member Curtis Anderson and his wife, Libba, Dr. Angle said.

“We sincerely appreciate Curtis and Libba Anderson who supported this amazing opportunity,” said Dr. Sumner. “This curriculum helped our students remember that care for patients involves much more than medication, physicians and procedures.”

Medical students enjoy the “Nurturing the Inner Healer” workshop on the Macon campus.


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Andrea Honaker
Andrea Honaker is a digital content specialist at Mercer. She writes feature stories for The Den and creates and maintains content for primary University web pages. She also plans and executes campaigns for the primary official Mercer University social media accounts.